US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plane makes its landing approach at Pohnpei International Airport in Kolonia, Federated States of Micronesia, on August 5. Photo: AFP / Jonathan Ernst / pool

In a case study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, excerpted yesterday in Asia Times, I described how the People’s Republic of China burrowed into America’s Pacific island territories and the “compact of free association” states – Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau, and the Marshall Islands – over the last 30 years via a wide-ranging and aggressive political warfare scheme including a powerful economic component.

To its credit, the Trump Administration is paying more attention to Chinese influence operations in the Pacific territories and the Asia-Pacific region than its predecessors – described by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “asleep at the switch.”

Indeed, Pompeo’s visit to Pohnpei, Micronesia, on Monday to meet with local FSM leaders and the Presidents of Palau and the Marshall Islands was the first such visit by a serving secretary of state. It followed another first in May when the three compact-state leaders visited Washington and met with the US president.

These are welcome developments, but a broader, long-term approach by the United States (and its friends) is needed to counter Chinese political warfare in the region.

What would that look like?

Conduct political warfare

The US needs a political warfare effort of its own. Efforts to date are unimpressive.  This needs to be a professionally run, systematic and continuous effort to bolster the US position in the Western Pacific island states – and, as importantly, to ensure continued US government support for the territories and compact states.

The US has plenty of ammunition given the scale of its longstanding support for FSM, Palau and the Marshall Islands as well as territories American Samoa, the Northern Marianas and Guam. Besides generous financial aid, the right of compact states’ and territories’ citizens to reside in the United States is immensely valuable, and would be rendered even more valuable to compact-state citizens by making available to them education and medical care.

And despite PRC blandishments, one notes that there are sizable Micronesian communities in Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Arkansas and elsewhere in the US, whose strong family ties provide a strong link to those back home.  There are none in the PRC, nor are Pacific Islanders joining the People’s Liberation Army – as they do the US military in large numbers.

But for a political warfare campaign to be effective, you’ve got to be there.  The Chinese have the largest diplomatic presence in the Pacific islands.  The US needs more diplomats in the Western Pacific territories – and ones who understand political warfare and see it as their principal mission, rather than simply reporting back to Washington about what the Chinese are doing.

So-called “key leader engagements” and other official fly-in visits from Hawaii and the US mainland are of limited value compared with on-scene Chinese diplomats, officials and businessmen (playing the role of the yankee traders of old) ingratiating, and inserting themselves from top to bottom into local societies.

The US might also reinstitute a Peace Corps presence or something akin to it. And the Americans should also institute a more handsome “visit diplomacy” scheme of its own to match PRC efforts – minus the bribery.

Interior to State

As part of the political warfare effort, the US should shift responsibility for the compact-of-free-association states from the Department of Interior to the State Department. Treat the COFA nations as full-fledged nations – just as the Chinese do.

Finally, a political warfare program will be most effective if coordinated with similar efforts conducted by Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and other friendly nations active in the region.

More financing

The US should accept that FSM and other compact states will not be economically self-sufficient by 2023 or 2024 (or maybe ever), and be prepared to subsidize them indefinitely, extending the financial terms of the compact agreements.

The termination of compact-guaranteed financial aid – supposedly to be replaced by trust funds – looms over the FSM, the Marshalls and Palau. Some observers complain that Washington hasn’t shared the worry to the extent locals do. However, Pompeo’s comments in Pohnpei suggest that a US administration finally gets it.

The United States should consider support for the Compact States a necessary maintenance cost for US national strategic interests. After all, there are other places on earth that are less critical to long-term US interests but where the US spends more money.  A fraction of the $45 billion spent annually on Afghanistan will go a long way in the Western Pacific.

Besides the compact states, territories Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa also have difficult economic circumstances and need full US Government support – including economic aid and regulatory accommodation to bolster local economies and provide alternatives to Chinese financial and commercial enticements.

Join Japan

The US should join with Japan to implement a public-private infrastructure development effort. The Japanese are keenly aware of the strategic importance of the US territories – and the so-called second-island chain running from Japan through Guam and Micronesia and down to Indonesia.

Focus on sanitation, water, telecommunications, power and electricity, roads, and ports, education and medical care.  For many Western and Japanese companies, infrastructure projects on small islands lack scale to make them attractive. However, with proper government support and guarantees, interest can be generated. As importantly, ongoing maintenance needs to be part of the infrastructure package. Chinese aid is often considered deficient in this regard – and the quality of Chinese construction projects is often sub-par.

The US, Japan, and Australia did announce a joint Indo-Pacific regional infrastructure development scheme in November 2018.  Let’s hope there will be more to this than just a handsome press conference, as sometimes happens.

Target corruption

Bribes and other hidden inducements provided by both PRC government and commercial entities are a standard feature of Chinese political warfare worldwide. Exposing this activity should be a priority for US and other friendly law enforcement and intelligence services – as a way of undercutting PRC political warfare efforts and bolstering local opponents of Chinese subversion.

Also, in the US territories it’s important to aggressively enforce immigration and criminal laws, which Chinese often seem to believe are advisory in nature. Carefully scrutinize the source of funding for so-called “private’’ Chinese entities investing in the American territories. Such companies are often unwilling to explain where their money comes from. US and friendly local authorities should insist on it.

Permanent military

The US should expand its military presence and make it as permanent as possible. Besides providing financial benefits there is the practical and psychological advantage of being there. It is even better when the US military and “white hull” US Coast Guard activities directly benefit the local governments – as in the case of radar and ocean surveillance systems planned for Palau. While serving a military purpose, these systems potentially help the Palau government monitor and protect its ocean territory and resources.

The US military is in fact showing more interest than ever in the Pacific Islands. The US Navy recently discussed with FSM areas of cooperation and military infrastructure development.  Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps commandant’s recently announced “guidance” declared that the Pacific is now the Corps’ main focus – after years in the “sandbox” of the Middle East and Afghanistan.  The US Air Force is talking about conducting exercises in Micronesia, and the US Army is also angling for a piece of the action in the Pacific islands.  The US Coast Guard is out and about in the region too.

Three more

• Bolster Taiwan’s ties with Palau and the Marshall Islands. Those diplomatic ties are an obstacle to successful PRC political warfare in both states. Do not allow the PRC to peel off two more countries from Taiwan.

• Don’t shy away from subsidies for “public goods” such as air and sea transportation. A major challenge to economic development and livelihood in the compact states is the difficulty and expense of getting there and getting around. The PRC has donated vessels to FSM for inter-island transport, and has also provided commercial aircraft.  The US can do the same.

• Offer first-rate legal assistance and education. This is needed in the compact states and in the territories – at the national and state government levels, and in the private sector. Both government and private entities and individuals have been victimized by unfair (or corrupt) deals with Chinese entities – such as fishing license leases and even the Saipan and Tinian casino deals. Also, land leases in FSM have provoked particular resentment of Chinese developers, who are seen as having taken unfair advantage of local citizens.

Implementing the aforementioned in the Central Pacific won’t be easy – even though it is relatively cheap and simple compared with other foreign affairs challenges facing the United States. But at least the Central Pacific is finally getting the attention it deserves. Now let’s see if Washington can stay focused.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer and a former US State Department diplomat.

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